The Thrill of Cannons and My American Male Lizard Brain

By David Himmel

I like guns. They meet two necessities required for dopamine to course through my American male lizard brain: they’re loud and they break stuff.

When I was a kid, my dad would set up empty Dr. Pepper cans full of water on the railing of the clubhouse he built me and my brothers in our backyard. We’d take turns shooting at the cans with his Red Ryder bb gun. While one of us shot, the others stared through binoculars at the cans and erupted with celebration when a bb struck and water slowly poured out from the hole. When I went away to summer camp, I took riflery and learned to respect the weapon and how to carry, load and fire it safely. The pops from the barrel and the puffs of dirt from the bullets burying themselves in the backstop hill after piercing the paper target gave me a thrilling sense of accomplishment.

I used to hunt with my grandfather in Arkansas. He and Gramma owned beautiful land in the Ozarks and we’d hunt squirrel. Using a .22 rifle or, when I was younger and less skilled, a .410 shotgun, I nabbed a few. Grampa taught me to clean them and Gramma taught me to cook them. Once, while biting into a fried leg of squirrel that had been leaping from one tree to another when I turned it into meat, I spit out a single piece of buckshot. How very hillbilly and how very real.

Fresh kill. The author, age 14.

Fresh kill. The author, age 14.

Grampa had a lot of guns for all sorts of various hunting and sporting needs. If it wasn’t hunting season or we just wanted to make some noise and break some things, we’d head out to the back of their property near the RV they never used and would shoot cans and bottles and milk cartons and watermelons with pistols, shotguns, rifles, muzzle loaders… BANG! BOOM! POP! SPLASH! SQUOOSH! Lizard brain.

When I would go walking on their property, down the bluff, over the creek, through the trees, I would always bring the .22 wheel gun with me. Strapped to my hip, it was for defense against snakes. I never had to use it. If it was hunting season, I’d bring a rifle, too. One afternoon, which is not prime hunting time, I took a walk with one of the dogs, Billie. Six-shooter on my hip, .22 rifle on my shoulder and Billie at my feet, I headed off into the woods. An hour or so into our hike, Billie treed a squirrel. She was on one side of the tree barking up at the rodent that had moved to the other side—my side—thinking it was safe. I felt bad. This wasn’t really our plan. I took aim and squeezed the trigger.

The squirrel dropped into the fallen leaves. I heard it roll a bit down the hill. Billie went after it. I followed. We couldn’t find it. I began to panic. I didn’t want to kill in cold blood. Not that my family needed that squirrel meat to live but that squirrel was going to be my dinner. Its gutted insides would feed the crows. If we didn’t find that squirrel we would have broken a link in the food chain. I was not OK with this. I didn’t know I was crying until I tasted the tears that were streaming down my face. Billie stopped scouring through the leaves and dirt, and looked at me with a tilted head and concerned eyes.

“We have to find it,” I said to her. And she dove right back down.

It was getting dark. We would have to head back soon. I couldn’t head back without that squirrel. And just as I was about to call it quits, just as the top of the orange sun dipped below the tree line, I found it. Billie found it at the same time. It had rolled quite a ways down from where it fell and was resting against a rock. We both darted for it. She got there first, scooped it up in her mouth and presented it to me.

“No girl, you can carry it home.”


A few weeks ago, I was visiting my in-laws down in central Illinois. My sister-in-law’s husband was home after serving nine months in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army. It was good to have the family all together. The last time we had been together was only a few weeks before that and under depressing circumstances—Grandmother had died. Sunday morning, we went shooting. My father-in-law and brother-in-law both hunt and have a few shotguns along with clay pigeons for practicing. Lester, the military officer, had brought his guns as well: .22 pistol, 9mm pistol, Baretta pistol, 12-guage shotgun and an AR-15.

We drove out to the edge of some woods and parked the trucks (yep, trucks) between the woods and someone’s house, just beyond their driveway. We set up the target thrower and the clay pigeons, loaded the shotguns and took turns shooting the whizzing targets. My brother-in-law Ben is a crack shot. My father-in-law isn’t bad either, though not as good as he used to be due to his aging eyesight, or so he says. Sister-in-law Donna gave a good showing, too. Lester fired away like a trained professional. I was out of practice and didn’t do so well with the pigeons but it was still fun. Lots of fun.

Then we turned our attention to some paper targets we’d posted on trees and a few old oil bottles we’d filled with water. Donna was taking aim with the Baretta when a white truck pulled up to us. A burly, older man stepped out.

“Can I help you?” he said.

“Nah, we’re good,” my father-in-law said.

I didn’t know what was about to happen but I was sure that this guy was the owner of the property and had heard and seen our arsenal, so he likely had one of his own, probably riding shotgun in that truck. What the hell were we doing there? This was a lot different than hunting squirrel and shooting bbs at Dr. Pepper cans.

“Oh, I didn’t know you all were coming out today,” the man said, apparently recognizing us.

The property was my father-in-law’s uncle. That’s how things are done in central Illinois. If you’re not in church, you’re at your uncle’s shooting at trees. And so we continued.

I had shot the weapons,or some version of the weapons, before with Grampa. But not the AR-15. The infamous AR-15. The thing our soldiers carry into battle. The thing that defends our freedom. The thing that can mow down our children in an elementary school. It’s a fun gun to shoot. Fast, light, accurate. It’s a pretty solid killing machine as far as killing machines go. I’m glad Lester brought it.

Had he not, I would have had just as much fun. The bangs and pops and targets coming apart and leaking oil bottles… Pure lizard brain, pure dopamine.


Las weekend, my wife Katie and I went to All Season’s Orchard in Woodstock, Illinois. Visiting an orchard is a tradition on her birthday weekend. We’d never been to this one and I was most excited to give the apple cannons a go. Apple cannons are, well, cannons connected to compressed air that shoot apples.

Ten bucks bought us 15 average-size apples. A single apple loads in from the side. Pull back the chamber and it drops down. Take aim down range at the big metal cut outs of a bat, spider, jack-o-lantern and ghost, and a frontier wagon. Squeeze the trigger. SWOOSH! The apple is launched. It goes soaring over the range toward your intended target. Accuracy is a problem because depending on the angle of your cannon’s barrel determined by where your target is located, the shape of the apple and how it rests against the pressure chamber, your apple can go low, high, left or right of the target. But if you hit those metal cut outs… CLANG! SQUOOSH! Apple innards everywhere. A splatter mark of white fruit guts on the black metal. If you miss, it’s still a kick because the cannon lets out each blast with a roaring WHOOSH! Lizard brain.

I could have blasted apples out of that thing all day long. But there were pig races to be seen.

The Himmels enjoy a day at the orchard.

The Himmels enjoy a day at the orchard.

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I’m a child of the ‘80s. I grew up during the Cold War in the warm embrace of America’s beautifully violent and heroic narrative. Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, He-Man… I used to think that Batman was a pussy because he wore kevlar. Rambo essentially rewrote history by winning the Vietnam War shirtless. And he blew up a helicopter gun ship with a bow and arrow. But I always knew this was bullshit. Hollywood. I may have fantasized about saving my school or my family or an office building from terrorists with weapons but I always knew that actually doing so was pure imagination.

Yeah, I like guns. Real guns. Pellet and bb guns. Apple cannons. NERF guns. If I never shoot another AR-15 again, I’d still be OK because I could get my fill of thrill from all the other weapons available to me. If I never shoot another Baretta or shotgun again, I’d still be OK because I could get my fill of thrill from the remaining weapons. If I never shoot another bb gun, I’d still be OK because I could get my fill of thrill from the apple cannons in Woodstock, Illinois.

And when I’m not in Woodstock and it’s not orchard season, I’ll always have my NERF guns. Sure, NERF guns aren’t as loud as the other weapons, even bb and pellet guns. And they can’t pierce a paper target or an aluminum can filled with water. But they can be played with indoors and make a great noise when you hit an empty plastic water bottle.

Lizard brain. It’s not that hard to please.